School & District Management Opinion

A Chance to Choose a New Direction for Education in California

By Anthony Cody — January 21, 2012 4 min read
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Last night I had the honor of speaking to an audience of several thousand teachers from the greater Sacramento area, at an event that featured State Superintendent Tom Torlakson, California Teachers Association vice president Eric Heins, Linda Darling Hammond and the woman who has emerged as the champion for teachers, Diane Ravitch. Nine area teacher union locals cooperated to organize the event, and in spite of driving rain, the huge Sacramento Convention Center was packed with more than 3,000 people.

This was by far the largest crowd I have ever addressed. Here is the message I shared.

I spent 24 years working in the Oakland schools, and most of the last decade of that, our district was under state control. I can tell you with a high degree of certainty that Governor Brown was correct when he said Wednesday:

“I have a hunch principals and teachers know the most” (about how to improve our schools.)

Governor Brown and Superintendent Torlakson have rejected Arne Duncan’s NCLB waiver process. California is blazing its own path towards better schools.

I want to paint a picture of how schools might be improved, once we get our ship of state onto a better course.

About fifteen years ago, Bret Harte, the Oakland middle school where I worked, had major problems. We had lots of students living in poverty, lots of immigrants, lots of special ed. We had high turnover, especially among science and math teachers. So we got a grant from the state - a program that went away a decade ago. The state’s Middle School Demonstration Program gave us about $30,000 a year to pay for us to collaborate, attend conferences and get some expert coaching. We paired every novice science or math teacher with an experienced colleague to give them advice and support. We met together to work on our assessments, and we observed one another teach using the Lesson Study process.

We were not intensely focused on our test scores, but they did rise. We were focused on learning together, and on understanding how to reach our students at all levels.

For the next two years, we did not lose a single science or math teacher.

We went on to spread this work across the District, [through a program called Curriculum in Focus] and Oakland now has a robust science program, with a special program called TeamScience that mentors novice science teachers in our middle and high schools.

You can guess the next chapter of my story about Bret Harte Middle School. Beginning in 2002, No Child Left Behind labeled our school a failure. We failed to make AYP one year after the next, with so many subgroups it was very hard to get them all going up at the same time. The Middle School Demonstration Program was cut, morale dropped, and a couple of years later there was only one teacher remaining from the dynamic science team we had built.

But we had learned what works.

Collaboration works. Teachers planning lessons together, observing one another teach, sharing assessments, and puzzling over what is making a difference with our students.

Reflection works. We grow when we have time to look carefully at what we have done, see what worked and what didn’t, and revise. Every lesson until our last is a draft.

Experience works.
Teaching is so complex, and our students are changing constantly. Experienced teachers develop a reservoir of case studies in our minds. We begin to understand how to reach students who have unusual talents, how to create that sense of community in our classrooms that brings kids out of their shells, and helps them take risks.

Assessment works
when the results are immediately available to teachers and students. Teachers know their students and the curriculum, and they ought to be assessing learning on a regular basis.

Mentoring works. Careful conversations that guide and inform can help a novice learn so much more, and avoid some of the shortcuts that cost dearly in the long run.

The MOST precious thing teachers have is time with one another.

Teachers in Finland spend 300 fewer hours with students than do American teachers. And the time they spend together is not consumed with poring over test data, or trying to focus their curriculum on things that will be tested.

As Adrienne Rich said at the start of No Child Left Behind,

Universal public education has two possible--and contradictory--missions. One is the development of a literate, articulate, and well-informed citizenry so that the democratic process can continue to evolve and the promise of radical equality can be brought closer to realization.
The other is the perpetuation of a class system dividing an elite, nominally 'gifted' few, tracked from an early age, from a very large underclass essentially to be written off as alienated from language and science, from poetry and politics, from history and hope--toward low-wage temporary jobs. The second is the direction our society has taken.

That is the direction we have taken under NCLB, but we have a chance in California to make a shift. Every teacher, every parent, every citizen needs to act on what we know works, and reject what we know is poison to our schools and students.

The entire edifice of No Child Left Behind is nearing collapse. The idea that we can improve schools by condemning them as failures is bankrupt. Even Arne Duncan knows that you cannot declare 100% of the schools in the nation a failure. Unfortunately, they are working on a whole backup act, which the NCLB waivers represents. There is the possibility that they will succeed in partitioning off as failures, the bottom tier of schools.

Everyone can agree -- in fact I heard on in Diane Ravitch’s appearance on the radio yesterday, the host, Michael Krasny, said “Everyone knows that the schools in Oakland are bad.” So we’ve all got to agree that somewhere there are the bad schools that deserve the terrible things that have been done to many many schools under No Child Left Behind. And the thought that came to mind this afternoon was a quote from a famous book: “Whatever you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.” I implore Superintendent Torlakson and Governor Brown. Do not sacrifice the bottom 5% of our schools in this way. Continue to lead us in a new direction.

Principals, teachers, students and parents all know much better. No Child Left Behind is dead in California. Let’s get on with the work of making our schools lively communities of learning for all of us.

What do you think of the choices confronting California?

Photo by Jivon Feliciano, used with permission. Video by David Cohen, used with permission.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.